It was bound to happen. California wine makers, who no longer need superficial bolstering for their world-class products, have abandoned the use of the word champ on their labels.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms still considers it a generic term, but top-flight producers of California bubbly now eschew the French geographical name of Champagne and content themselves to use methode champenoise, sparkling wine, brut and other terms. These labelings let the world know that the effervescent wine in the foil-corked bottle is what most people call champagne, even though it was made thousands of miles and an ocean away from the only country on earth entitled to that appellation--France.
Don't think for a moment that the French have let down their guard. The Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) fully governs label nomenclature, appellations of origin, grape varieties, vine yield, production, marketing, promotion--virtually all activity involving Champagne. It even controls the labeling practices of other countries: No Common Market country dealing with France may ship a sparkling wine labeled Champagne . So Germans, who make more bubbly than anyone on earth, call it Sekt , and the Italians call it spumante . Even bubbly from other French provinces, such as the Bouvet Brut made in the valley of the Loire, is called vin mousseux, and so is sparkling Burgundy.
When Count Robert-Jean de Vogue, chairman of the board of Moet & Chandon of Dom Perignon fame, acquired land in the Napa Valley in 1973 for the production of sparkling wine, the wine world wondered what he would call his product. As a champenoise, he would have been drummed out of the corps by the CIVC if he'd dared to label his California sparkler champagne. In 1973, at the black-tie installation dinner of the Chevaliers du Tastevin in Beverly Hills, I asked the count what he intended to name his wine.
"Well," he said, looking whimsically into space, "when you are going to have a child, you have nine months to decide whether to call it John or Mary. With an elephant, it takes three years. I opt to go with the elephant."
True to his word, when the first wine was disgorged three years later, it emerged as Domaine Chandon Napa Valley Brut. But in very small print at the bottom of the label was this legend: "This cuvee was produced in the California cellars of Domaine Chandon under the supervision of the chef de caves, Champagne Moet & Chandon, Epernay, France." The time-honored, irrefutable source of the tradition was on the label.
Piper Sonoma, of Piper-Heidsieck, flourishes in Sonoma, and Roederer of Reims is planting vines in Mendocino County. But the newest French Champagne house to present a California offspring is Maison Deutz (pronounced "Dootz"), founded in 1838 and based in Ay, two miles from Epernay.
I recently attended the premiere tasting of Maison Deutz Methode Champenoise Brut Cuvee Santa Barbara County Sparkling Wine at the Deutz pressoir, or press house. It is set among rolling vines within sight of the ocean in Arroyo Grande, a few miles southeast of Pismo Beach. On the wine's label, in tiny print beneath the French coat of arms, is this legend: "This California cuvee was produced under the direct supervision of Andre Lallier, proprietaire and chef de caves, Champagne Deutz, Ay, France."
Before tasting the wine, guests rode on hay wagons drawn by tractors from the pressoir to the summit of the 660 acres of vineyards of Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot blanc and Chenin blanc. The area is one of the few in California with visible outcroppings of chalky limestone soil, similar to that of Champagne. It was chosen by Lallier because of this feature.
In front of a blackboard describing the plantation of his grapes, now in fourth leaf, Lallier beamed as he explained the cuvee of the initial wine: "The House of Champagne Deutz is one of the few remaining family wineries. We do not need to consult a board of directors for decisions. I make the wine. Quality dictates the supply of our wine. There are limits for development in France. In 1977, we bought vineyards in the Loire. That is why I like Chenin Blanc. In 1982, I visited this area (Arroyo Grande) and found this unique site for producing grapes with high acidity, low alcohol, from soil high in limestone.
"Starting from the ground, we have been able to build a winery exactly as we would want it, with completely traditional equipment. All along, the process follows exactly the way Champagne Deutz is made in France."
A press release given to those attending said the cuvee of the first 1,900 cases had been composed of 40% Pinot blanc, 30% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay, all grapes selected from vineyards in Santa Barbara County. (The vines in Arroyo Grande will be used in the second release.) The first, non-vintage release spent 18 months on the yeast; 80% of the total blend went through malolactic fermentation.
Seated next to Lallier at this festive dinner, prepared by chef Jeremiah Tower of Stars restaurant in San Francisco and served in a great cellophane tent with vines and flowers entwined on the supports, I tasted this first-release Maison Deutz Brut. It's a thoroughly engaging wine of indisputably French style. Could that relate to the Coquard basket press, imported from France? We had watched it while four tons of white grapes were gently pressed, the juices flowing through a strainer on the way to stainless steel fermenters.
I thought back to Lallier's talk and the phrase written on the blackboard: "Chenin Blanc, 20 acres." In France, the CIVC permits only Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier varieties to be grown in Champagne. Lallier had mentioned his affection for Chenin Blanc and the acquisition of a Loire vineyard. I leave you to guess the rest of this secret, without much strain. It just might be one of the reasons this Maison Deutz Brut ($15) is so delightful.